Mexico City Circuit

Um, Toto, I don’t think we’re in Tenochtitlan anymore…

And neither are the Aztecs. That’s so 1521. Cortés, a bunch of pissed off Aztec enemies, and smallpox did their dirty work. 500 years later, things look a tad different on what was once Lake Texcoco.


Mexico City and its suburbs have 22 million people, and sometimes it seemed like all of them were on the road. Commuting anywhere has to factor in traffic delays. Things move so slowly mobile storefronts (folks on foot) wander around and among the cars, trucks, and motorcycles, giving impromptu performances and hawking anything they can carry.

Breakdance intersection
Tortillas, apples, you name it. Why go to a restaurant when the restaurant comes to you?

One thing Cortés and company brought with their conquering army was Catholicism. The impact on Mexican culture is inescapable, especially in the guise of the Virgin of Guadalupe. Even this garbage truck driver seeks her protection.


Back in the Aztec days, Texcoco wasn’t the only source of lakefront property. To the south was Lake Xochimilco (sow·chee·meel·kow) and Lake Chalco. Mexico City has subsumed them too. All that’s left of Lake Xochimilco are a few miles of canals and some ponds here and there. This process was triggered all the way back in the Aztec days by the creation of Chinampas, floating islands created for agricultural purposes.

These days, apart from being known as a suburb of Mexico City, Xochimilco is famous for its Trajineras. These boats are like gondolas on steroids, complete with boatmen pushing them around with long, sturdy poles. They are the Mexican version of party boats.

And boy, do the Mexicans like to party.

Come the weekend, and we were there on a Saturday, Mexicans flock to the Trajineras in such numbers that the canal traffic jams are even worse than those on the surface streets. Most of them appeared to have family groups, small or extended, enjoying a picnic (or not, based on the bored look on some kids’ faces) on the canal as the boatmen poled their way through the party armada.

Sprinkled on boats among the family groups, or sometimes with a group at the end of a Trajinera, small and large mariachi bands added their festive flair to the proceedings. All in all, it was marginally organized chaos. Not really my thing.

But then, my attitude was likely skewed by a couple of incidents.

First, due to the traffic, boats were constantly colliding with each other. Think aquatic bumper cars. I had an arm ever so slightly resting on the edge of the boat when another came up from behind, collided, and gave me a nasty pinch and a colorful five-day bruise. Not fun.

The bigger bummer was photography related. It seems these boats were not entirely waterproof, or perhaps collected rain. I discovered this the hard way, when someone pointed out my camera bag was sitting on the deck in a pool of water. The good news was I had my camera in hand, and the flooding affected no spare lenses, so no expensive disasters. The bad news I didn’t discover until that evening.

When checking out the bag to see what got wet, it came down to a lens cleaning kit which was no big deal, and my camera’s battery charger. That was a big deal, as the charger wasn’t working. I had only a couple of spare batteries, enough for a couple more days of shooting. But this was on the first day of a 12-day tour. It was a major “oh shit” moment. It looked like I’d be restricted to shooting with my cell phone. While my phone takes good pictures, its focal range leaves much to be desired. Oh well.

But all was not lost. I had noticed, on that first day, on the other end of the Trajinera, another guy in our tour group who was also shooting with a “real” camera. The next day I introduced myself, checked out his camera, and pled my misfortune. It turned out he was also a Nikon shooter, his camera battery was of the same sort as mine, and his battery charger had a second slot. Being a nice guy, he was willing to help me out with my battery charging problem. Crisis averted. (Thanks again, Derreck.) Several days later I rechecked my charger, found it had finally dried out, and was working again.

Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe

I mentioned the Virgin of Guadalupe before. Who is she, and what’s the big deal?

It is related to apparitions of the Virgin Mary described by Juan Diego Cuauhtlatoatzin, one of the first Aztecs that converted to Christianism. They occurred between December 9 and 12, 1531 on the hill of Tepeyac, a small upland near Mexico City. The apparitions asked Juan Diego to have a church erected at the site in her honor. In the full story, there were five apparition appearances, a dubious archbishop, and a couple of miracles.

The Old Basilica and the Capuchin Nuns’ Temple

I do not pretend to understand the lure of religious shrines, but the basilica is the most-visited Catholic shrine in the world.

New Basilica and Old Basilica

Initially, a small chapel was built on site, then in 1557, a bigger chapel replaced this first temple, and in 1622, a consecrated sanctuary was built. Officially known as the “Templo Expiatorio a Cristo Rey,” the Old Basilica was begun in 1695 and was finished in 1709. The New Basilica was built between 1974 and 1976, both to handle larger crowds, and because the Old Basilica was becoming unstable due to sinking foundations.

The Cloak of Juan Diego

A shrine implies a religious artifact, and the most visited Catholic shrine must have a doozy. In this case the artifact is the alleged cloak of Juan Diego, which was miraculously imprinted with the image of the Virgin of Guadalupe – a title requested by the apparition. In the New Basilica, this relic is approached via moving walkway, behind a screen that hides the passers-by from the view of any congregation taking in a religious service.

The Arts

There’s no denying the Mexicans are an artistic people. Passing through the city it’s common to encounter sculptures, murals, and monuments. Frida Kahlo shows up a lot in murals – the eyebrows are unmistakable. (But not always in places conducive to pictures from bus windows…)

Frida, for a time, was married to another well known Mexican artist, Diego Rivera. While we didn’t have time to visit Frida’s museum, (even though it was walking distance from where we had lunch,) we did visit a gallery with some of Diego’s art, including a mural that had been relocated from a building damaged in an earthquake.

Dreams of a Sunday in the Alameda Central Park. Click for a larger image.

The bulk of the mural contains famous people and events from Mexico’s history.

In the center of the mural, the skeletal woman is the Dame Catrina (“La Calavera Catrina“), a figure parodying the Mexican high-society obsession with European customs in the early 1900s. Catrina has Diego as a child in her right hand, and behind Diego is Frida Kahlo. To her left is her original creator, José Posada.

Catrina is a common figure in Mexico’s Day of the Dead celebrations. I found this pair of dandies in the window of a jewelry store and expect it’s a permanent display.

City Center

The Metropolitan Cathedral is the oldest church in Mexico, and if you have a good arm it’s a stone’s throw from where the Aztec Templo Mayor (their big pyramid shaped temple) once stood. In fact, it’s likely that the stone used to build the cathedral came from the pyramid.

It took 240 years to build, from 1573 to 1813, so it makes sense that it has various architectural styles. But although it’s stood for 450 years its foundations are in peril. The cathedral – much like the rest of Mexico City – is sinking into the lakebed upon which it was built as the aquafers are drained.

The interior, like many Spanish cathedrals of the era is ornate, and gold leaf is near as common as house paint.

Monument to the visit of Pope Francis in 2016. The Pope also visited the Basilica of the Virgin of Guadalupe.

The Plaza de la Constitución, Mexico City’s main square.

The National Palace, home of the federal government offices

Remember this?

There’s not much left of it…

Templo Mayor was built up six times in the Aztec era, with new chieftains building on top of the existing pyramids. Wikipedia suggests that most of what is known about the temple is based on the historical record, without saying what the source of the historical is.

In the early years of the Spanish occupation, Tenochtitlan was largely torn down, with the materials used to erect Spanish style buildings. Most of the ruins were built over. When proper excavation began in the later 20th century, some of the newer buildings themselves needed to be removed for site access. These days, artifacts from these excavations can be found at museums on site.

But for the tourists, Mexican or otherwise, enterprising performers still put on a show…

… although I have a sneaking suspicion that Aztec warriors didn’t wear Spandex.

24 thoughts on “Mexico City Circuit

  1. I’ll happily pass on the insane traffic and “marginally organized chaos.” Not really my thing either! To be honest, that pretty much describes any city of any size to me these days! 🥴 But thank heavens for the rescue with the battery charger!!! It surely would have been a disaster without it. The images you did capture would have been greatly missed. We also noted the Catholic flavor during visits to NM. Perhaps a bit less flagrant, but still… 🤨

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Wow, Dave, you can’t imagine how I enjoyed seeing this post.
    Still newly-weds [with my year in Vietnam intervening], Alie and I took our first trip out of the country together to Mexico City. We flew down on Christmas Day and back on New Year’s Eve because those seats were available and cheap – and we were upgraded to an empty first class on New Year’s eve.
    Twenty-two million – I can’t imagine it. Much has changed [e.g., the New Basilica] but much remains the same.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Too bad you didn’t get to see Frida’s house, but you sure got around the city otherwise! As part of a tour, were you able to get into the smaller neighborhoods at all (Roma Norte, La Condesa, etc)? I know CDMX can seem overwhelming, but it has wonderfully peaceful pockets, too.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Lex, good to hear from you! We didn’t really get into the smaller neighborhoods – not enough time. We were only in Mexico City for two days; the first day we did the Museum of Anthropology and the boats at Xochimilco, and the second we did the Basilica, Teotihuacan (next post), Rivera’s museum, and the city center. It’s the nature of guided tours; cover lots of ground, see a ton of stuff, and skim almost everything. That’s one reason I blog, to help remember what becomes a blur…

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Beautiful artwork for sure!

    I once ventured out to take photos in the northern Black Hills and realized when I got there I’d forgotten to put the battery back in my camera…and I had no spare. Whoopsie.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I had something similar happen to me a few years back at the Rhododendron Garden in SE Portland, only it was the SD card instead of the battery. I still get Google Photo reminders of the cell phone pics I ended up taking that day.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. The scenes with mobile storefronts remind me of Jakarta, the city where I live in. Indeed, it is one of many similarities both cities share, which is among the reasons why Mexico City (and Mexico in general) is one of the places I most want to see. Thanks for including some photos of the Metropolitan Cathedral as well.

    I’m sorry about the battery charger incident. But I’m glad in the end it could work normally again.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I am glad to hear your hand and the damages from the water are minimal. I can completely understand how you felt when that happened. The pictures are amazing. I like the inside of the cathedral. It looks magnificent. The outside is also fantastic.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It was my arm that got dinged, which was probably better than a hand. I’ve noticed that even in Europe, old Spanish cathedrals are much more ornate and guilded than those of other countries. Guess it was a cultural thing.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. I really enjoyed seeing the Trajineras. They reminded me of the brightly painted taxis and lorries of West Africa, although they seemed in better repair, and of course were land-based rather than water-based.

    The Virgin of Guadalupe is quite a part of life here, too. More than churches are named for her: the Guadalupe River, one of the most beautiful in the state, owes its name to her, votive candles bearing her image are sold in chain groceries as well as bodegas, and vehicles with her image on the rear window are pretty common. The cathedral is wonderful, and it would have been quite something to see Juan Diego’s cloak, but I kind of enjoy seeing the Blessed Virgin on the back of a beat-up Nissan.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. When you mention brightly painted taxis/lorries I’m reminded of the jeepneys in the Philippines. They look like small school buses with jeep front ends, and each has a unique and colorful paint job, reflecting its owner. They are essentially taxis for 20 (or however many they can stuff in.)

      I didn’t see images of the virgin on too many vehicles, which is one of the reasons I was so struck by seeing it on the garbage truck – clearly a treasure to the driver.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Great highlights of Mexico City! I’m glad your camera incident wasn’t fatal. The traffic is some of the worst I have ever experienced. Whenever I visit Mexico City, I like to use the Metro. It is fast and cheap but also extremely crowded. I don’t think I would ride it with covid still hanging around.


    1. I was all set to have a so-so trip to Mexico when it looked like my main camera would be shut down. Fortunately, I had some luck.

      I’m not really a fan of huge cities in general, and am not motived to return to Mexico City even though I’m sure they have many cool hidden sites. Also, one thing I forgot to mention was the air polution. It absolutely reeked that first day.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. Amazing. We’d love to go to Mexico City. I’m not sure how I’d do in the altitude. When we had a transfer in Mexico City at the airport, all I was doing was sitting and had a splitting headache. I’m a mess at 5000Ft too. I didn’t write about it, but we went to Day of the Dead in Oaxaca back in 2019. Day of the Dead was amazing and we felt like there are some similarities with the way Chinese visit their ancestors graves. I really have to get back into blogging again. My brain during lockdown and I just couldn’t write, would have been all complaints so it’s good I didn’t blog much. ha.

    What’s Portland like at the moment? We felt ok in downtown Seattle when we visited this May but it def seemed different compared to 2017. Like would it be safe if we visited and stayed downtown where it’s walkable? Found some fun Halloween things to do there. In lockdown, a long lost 3rd cousin popped up on ancestry. We just visited him and his wife (they’re in Seattle) last month. She loves Halloween like us so that’s how Portland stumbled onto my map, looking up Halloweeny things in the PNW.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Part of the problem in Mexico City may have been smog. It was pretty bad the day we flew in and it gave me a headache too, but improved over time.

      Re: Portland: in truth I haven’t been downtown for quite a while, and rarely went there even in the best of times, so I can’t really give you a full assessment. We do have a homeless problem around the city these days and I suspect there are some of those folks downtown. We have a pretty good transit system (light rail and buses) so you’re not obligated to stay downtown. Other than that if you can handle NYC you could probably handle Portland. If you do head this way drop me a line in my About section, maybe we can do lunch or something.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Thanks! Will def drop you a line when we plan a Portland trip. Also looking forward to checking out Powells books, love books.

        My cousin has the 2nd booster and she didn’t get covid. Her daughter and husband got it on their return trip from Europe (they only have the 1st booster). They tested neg to fly back but on the flight they both came down w symptoms. Vic and I have been lucky, each time we flew we had a booster about a month before. My mom is recovering from covid right now. She’s doing much better. My mom’s friends tend to go out when sick and she thinks that’s how she got it. So far we’ve been ok but we wonder if we had it early in Jan 2020, they did moved back the timeline to fall 2019. We both got really sick with a severe flu w severe lethargy. Vic had it milder than me, I was down for 3 weeks. Had some brain fog after, couldn’t taste, etc. Too bad we’ll never know. Feel like my cousins family was a nice experiment. Hoping there’s new variant specific vaccines for fall. We’re visiting my CA family then. Stay safe!

        Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s